top of page


I met Tuff on a mild fall day a couple years

back. My wife and I were wandering through the countryside in an old pickup, as we tend to do on lazy Sunday afternoons. I knew the country well: it comprised the “stomping grounds” of many adventures from my younger years. The sight of an unfamiliar and slightly out-of-place structure invited a change-of-course for a closer look.

As we drove past Tuff was there, out front working amongst saw-horses, power tools, and piles of materials; his big, beautiful, modern-cut home as a backdrop.

Tuff Larson is the kind of guy who invites you in. If you stop for a minute, you’d be a fool not to have planned for an hour. Homemade lemonades in mason jars are likely to accompany the conversation.

I believe that the kinds of things that are built by hand are the most interesting kinds of things. Knives, boots, clothing…they all carry with them the stories of their builders. Hand-built goods carry with them a certain nostalgia that you’ll never experience with the store-bought version of the same thing; saddles and copper mugs are no exception.

When I learned that Tuff was a saddle maker, I had to know more. There certainly aren’t many of those kinds of folks around any longer. The art of building something functional by hand is a dying one; and certainly so when speaking of saddlery.

I had a thousand questions for Tuff. I’ve never been a horseman and have absolutely no need for a saddle but the idea of building something like a saddle from nothing was fascinating. My second trip to his place was more intentional…and was scheduled; I’d taken him up on his invite to check out the saddle shop.

A grain bin stands on the outskirts of Tuff’s ranch yard; overlooking a stable of horses…long considered obsolete for more efficient harvest logistics. The bin fits in amongst this country, hardly a reason to ponder its existence any further than a passing glance: until you clear its radius just enough to bring a pergola-adorned front porch into plain view. Trot up a few steps and through a front door and a mini-oasis appears.

The interior of the old grain bin is insulated and built out in the name of function. A hat rack full of cowboy hats greets you first and then your eyes scan the round room. Colorful cowboy art and vintage signs adorn the walls. A large sturdy workbench, strewn with straps, scraps, and tools divides the room into two semi-circles. Old-timey sewing machines line the outer arcs and the whole place smells perfectly of rich leather.

The sewing machines are incredible; built and operated in the early trimester of the 1900’s. I

can’t take my eyes off them – they look incredibly heavy. The spin of a nearby wheel relays the sounds and feel of precision that hasn’t been built into machinery for almost a century.

“You collect these?”

My mind realized the stupidity of the question before it was finished, but out it came.

“I use ‘em!” Tuff exclaimed.

Everything I loved about Tuff’s story just kept getting better.

We spent an afternoon learning the quirks and intricacies of each machine; what era they hailed from, what they were built to manufacture, how he’s repurposed them and where each one shines in the process of building a saddle from scratch.

“This one will stitch leather an inch thick.”

“This one wasn’t working once. I found a guy in St Louis that knew the machine. I hauled it down there and accompanied him while he showed me how to fix it – there’s not a lot of people who know about these machines, anymore”.

These were the kinds of things that Tuff told us about. He obviously knew all about leather and working with it but there was another thing becoming increasingly obvious about Tuff as he showed us his craft: He had a deep appreciation and love for a time long gone away. Tuff’s mind, and how it holds details from history is unique – and it’s one of the reason’s he’s so easy to spend time with.

Perhaps my favorite anecdote from that day was about one of the older machines. It was, even to the untrained eye, one of the bigger and more intricate machines. It sat atop a

fabricated steel frame that added confidence to the idea that it must weigh a ton.

I operated the large cast-iron wheel slowly and watched, in awe, at the seemingly millions of parts that worked together. This machine, undoubtedly, makes a modern combustion motor seem like a child’s puzzle.

“This one…” Tuff said

“It was used for putting soles on boots for the army in the WWII era”.

“It’s really interesting in the manual – I have the original manual somewhere – but in the manual it tells all the usual stuff, how to use it, how to calibrate it, how to fix it….but in the very back of the manual it gives instructions on which parts to destroy so that it’s impossible to repair. They had those instructions in there in the event of capture, or hostile takeover from an enemy, so that the machinery would be useless to them”.

Interesting seemed like an understatement.

Over the course of a couple months, Tuff and the Handlebend crew kicked around ideas. We

brainstormed and tested different designs. Tuff would make a few samples and swing by the copper shop to brainstorm some more. The details took some time to perfect, but we all knew from the beginning that Tuff’s leather and Handlebend’s copper needed to come together.

Recently we finished the process and the result is pure beauty.

The time we spent with Tuff learning about him, his family, and his craft was jam packed with goodness. Along the way my mind kept coming around to the similarities I would recognize between Handlebend’s copper mugs and Tuff’s saddles. Building something from nothing takes a very specific kind of creativity; not to mention patience and skill. A builder of goods is probably never skilled at first. Mastering an art (if we ever do) takes repetition. It takes failure and a willingness to see the problem-solving process through til the end.

Often these kinds of things…this art, gets better with time. Imagine the discomfort of a brand-new pair of leather boots. Most of the time I wear new boots so carefully I feel foolish; afraid to scuff them. Inevitably, though, there comes a period of time when the boots are far better than brand new: they’ve worn into the contours of my foot, they’ve got battle scars – stories from good old memories, and they have taken a look unlike any other pair of boots. The next phase is one of the worst; there’s the break-in phase, and the best phase….and then comes the worn-out phase. That’s the thing about something built by hand; someone built it the first time. Chances are, they can revive or repair it for another set of adventures.

I think the same rings true for a whole host of hand-built tools…functional art. A knife. An axe. A saddle. A mug. Each serves a definite purpose. They wear over time; each day takes its toll. Year after year, use after use, you garner a bit more pride in the tools of your trade. With proper care, many of these goods will last a lifetime or more. These kinds of products were common not very long ago, though they (and their builders) have waned, heavily, as our world becomes more connected and big business becomes ever-bigger. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about it, and I think these characteristics run common amongst many hand-made goods; saddles and copper mugs notwithstanding.

We are proud to add the Cinch to our Handlebend lineup. We’ve always operated under the premise that we might not be for everyone; we don’t need to be. We do, though, want to do our best to put something on your kitchen table that you’ll be proud of. Early in the Handlebend story we recognized folks were gathering around the mugs we build. This is one of the things we are the proudest of – that people are proud of the products we spend our time building. Folks are settling in with family and friends sipping and sharing stories and we’re honored to have a seat at the table.

Gather. Share. Slow down. Most of all: Enjoy.

473 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page